Reflections on Tyranny: Euripides, Archilochus, Tibullus, and… Gibbon

Euripides, Ion 621-632:

“Who can be blessed or fortunate when he draws out the length of his days by fearing for his life? I would rather live as a happy citizen than be a tyrant who delights in keeping bad company, and hates excellent men because he fears death. You might say that gold overcomes these things, that being rich is a source of joy? I have no desire to hear the empty jangle of coin in my hand as I horde a fortune, nor do I long for labors: let me possess a modest share without toil.”

τίς γὰρ μακάριος, τίς εὐτυχής,
ὅστις δεδοικὼς καὶ παραβλέπων βίον
αἰῶνα τείνει; δημότης ἂν εὐτυχὴς
ζῆν ἂν θέλοιμι μᾶλλον ἢ τύραννος ὤν,
ᾧ τοὺς πονηροὺς ἡδονὴ φίλους ἔχειν,
ἐσθλοὺς δὲ μισεῖ κατθανεῖν φοβούμενος.
εἴποις ἂν ὡς ὁ χρυσὸς ἐκνικᾷ τάδε,
πλουτεῖν τε τερπνόν; οὐ φιλῶ ψόφους κλύειν
ἐν χερσὶ σῴζων ὄλβον οὐδ᾽ ἔχειν πόνους:
εἴη γ᾽ ἐμοὶ μὲν μέτρια μὴ λυπουμένῳ.


There are multiple parallels for this basic sentiment, but I will list two which readily occur to mind:

Archilocus, 22:

“I care not for the wealth of golden Gyges, nor has envy ever seized me, nor am I jealous of the works of the gods, nor do I have any desire to be a great tyrant. Such things lay far outside of my consideration.”

οὔ μοι τὰ Γύγεω τοῦ πολυχρύσου μέλει,
οὐδ᾽ εἷλέ πώ με ζῆλος, οὐδ᾽ ἀγαίομαι
θεῶν ἔργα, μεγάλης δ᾽ οὐκ ἐρέω τυραννίδος:
ἀπόπροθεν γάρ ἐστιν ὀφθαλμῶν ἐμῶν.

Tibullus, 1.1.1-6:

“Let someone else heap up mounds of tawny gold and cultivate his many acres; let constant labor wear him down while his enemy lives next door, and let sound of war trumpets chase away his dreams. As for me, let my honorable poverty lead me through a quiet life, as long as my hearth burns with a constant fire.”

Divitias alius fulvo sibi congerat auro
Et teneat culti iugera multa soli,
Quem labor adsiduus vicino terreat hoste,
Martia cui somnos classica pulsa fugent:
Me mea paupertas vita traducat inerti,
Dum meus adsiduo luceat igne focus.


Jumping ahead almost 1,800 years, Edward Gibbon gives an account of the pitfalls of tyranny in his description of Didius Julianus, who purchased the imperial throne from the praetorian guards, who had resolved to sell it after brutally murdering the previous emperor, Pertinax. Gibbon’s account is imbued with the same spirit which runs through the above three passages:

“From the senate Julian was conducted, by the same military procession, to take possession of the palace. The first objects that struck his eyes, were the abandoned trunk of Pertinax, and the frugal entertainment prepared for his supper. The one he viewed with indifference, the other with contempt. A magnificent feast was prepared by his order, and he amused himself, till a very late hour, with dice, and the performances of Pylades, a celebrated dancer. Yet it was observed, that after the crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire which had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money.”
-The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Chapter V

The Tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton

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